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Old Neighborhood Faces Changes : Some Residents of San Diego's Hillcrest Community Fear Two Major Developments May Spell End to Its Small-Town Life Style

September 24, 1989|DIRK SUTRO | Sutro is a San Diego free-lamce writer

The San Diego community of Hillcrest is something of a 1980's anomaly, especially when compared to the suburban sprawl typical of much of the county.

A mix of neighborhood shops, restaurants and housing ranging from $400-a-month apartments to $400,000 homes, makes it a tightly knit urban community offering a convenient small-town life style.

And Hillcrest, 3 miles north of downtown, is one of the few neighborhoods with a lively night life, where people wander the sidewalks well into the evening, browsing in shops, stopping for dessert or espresso at Quel Fromage, the neighborhood coffee house.

The community has a rich socio-economic mix, including a significant portion of San Diego's gay population, and enjoys its own unique artsy/intellectual atmosphere.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 1, 1989 Home Edition Real Estate Part 8 Page 4 Column 1 Real Estate Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
San Diego's Hillcrest--Developers of Uptown District, a 14-acre mixed-use project under way in the community of Hillcrest, are Ted Odmark, at left, and Dene Oliver. The two were incorrectly identified in a Sept. 24 caption.

Now, however, some residents fear that two huge new developments only a few blocks apart may alter Hillcrest for the worse. At the very least, the projects will drastically change the look and feel of some important streets.

Already rising commercial rents spurred by the anticipation of these new projects are drastically changing the mix of businesses, especially along 5th Avenue near University Avenue, in the heart of Hillcrest.

In the past three or four years, rents have gone, in some cases, from less than $1 a square foot to as much as $2.50. A neighborhood grocery, a produce market, an antique store, a picture framing business, a basket shop, a bakery and a hair salon are among the casualties.

Residents fought successfully to keep McDonald's from taking over the framing shop's space, which is occupied by a glitzy clothing and gift store, part of a chain. A steak house replaced the antique shop, and a chain yogurt shop is a another new neighbor.

"This is a wonderful street, with the ficus trees," said Tom Stoup, who bought the Blue Door bookstore next door to The Guild art movie house on 5th Avenue last July. "I just don't like to see this neighborhood turn into a mall."

Both projects responsible for the air of anxious anticipation in Hillcrest are by the same developer, Oliver McMillan, a partnership founded by Dene Oliver, 38, an outgoing, persuasive deal maker with an interest in architecture, and Jim McMillan, 39, a low-keyed businessman known for his attention to detail. The two men made their reputations, and fortunes, developing speculative office buildings in San Diego.

Uptown District will be an $85-million mix of restaurants, shops, a supermarket, a community center and 318 moderate- to high-end rental units ($650 to $1,400 a month).

Bordered by University, Washington Street, Richmond Street and the 163 Freeway, the 14-acre site is only blocks from the center of Hillcrest. Uptown District, being developed in partnership with Odmark Development, a housing specialist, is scheduled for completion later this year.

The Uptown District project was something of a white knight to the city of San Diego, which originally purchased the longtime site of a now-closed Sears store with the intention of putting a new central library there.

When feasibility studies indicated it wasn't the best place, the land sat for several months before city consultants suggested a mixed-use development.

Oliver McMillan proposed Uptown District and purchased the 12.4-acre site for $10.6 million, eventually adding adjacent parcels to give the project more street frontage along University.

Closer to the heart of Hillcrest, Oliver McMillan will soon break ground on the $70-million Village Hillcrest, an unusual combination of movie theaters, medical offices, a rehabilitation hospital, office and live-work loft spaces and about 20 rental apartments on a 2.15-acre site bounded by 5th Avenue, University, Washington and the 163 Freeway.

Art Movie Houses

Some Hillcrest lovers see it as a positive sign that the developers are leasing their multicinema not to a typical mall movie chain, but to Landmark Theatres, which operates several San Diego art movie houses.

Oliver McMillan is not remaking Hillcrest in a vacuum. Today's urban development process requires many levels of discussion and approval, and Oliver McMillan seems committed to cooperating, meeting often with community groups and city planners as their designs evolve.

Eric Naslund, a young San Diego architect who chairs the Uptown Community Planning Group, which advises the city of San Diego on planning matters in communities including Hillcrest, thinks the developers are doing a respectable job fielding community concerns.

Naslund said the Uptown planners liked Oliver McMillan's Sears site proposal best among the three submitted, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is a true mixed-use project, with residences above street-level shops, a characteristic of buildings in Hillcrest's existing business core on 5th.

Revitalize Street Frontage

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